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Spreading my wings Part 1: Sweden – Europe 101, discovering fish and those in between spaces.

A few months ago, while decluttering my home I came across some amazing pictures of my first ever trip to Europe – Sweden to be precise. It was 1996. I had to check my CV to juggle my memory what the title of the course even was.

There is something to be said about having started my career in the Zambian Government and the opportunities that were given to me in terms of professional growth. I don’t even want to use that funny phrase: Capacity development. Because it was much more than that and so many in between spaces and experiences that cannot be just left to a definition around this phrase.

OK. So here I was in my early 20’s, recommended by my govt to participate in a fully funded training course in Linköping, Sweden. And so it happened that in the autumn of 1996 (24 August) I boarded a flight to head to Stockholm. The course, as my documents read, was entitled: Development of National Forestry Policies and Strategies. Prior to me taking my flight, I remembered that my father had a dear Swedish friend who used to live and work in my hometown, Mansa, for the Swedish Development agency - SIDA. My father graciously shared his phone number and I promised I would reach out to him once I got there.

Thanks to all the logistical information shared by the organizers, I knew to bring something warm as it was the beginning of autumn (well so the document said – not that I had any idea what that even meant) and as such it would be chilly in the evenings and temperatures had started to fall. Thank goodness for second hand markets in Lusaka then – a friend took me for sweater and jacket shopping. Quite frankly I don’t even remember whether google did exist in 1996 but what I do remember is that I didn’t have the luxury of a search engine to even have an inclination as to where I was going. It was all too new and exciting for me. I KNEW where Sweden was on the map in fact, through my secondary school geography lessons and I knew so much about this temperate country, its people, forests, foods etc. In fact, growing up my home town was full of Scandinavian people all working within the development aid field and as such my twin sister and I played with their children at primary school and even learnt a few words of their languages and them, ours.

And then I landed in Stockholm. A beautiful city on an archipelago that blew my mind away. I had never for the life of me seen so much water around a city. Anyhow, all settled in the hotel, I called Lennart Lindholm, my father’s old friend. He was ecstatic and shocked that I was in Sweden. He informed me that he lived in another town, Uppsala and he would pick me up on one of the days for dinner at his house and I would get to meet his then 86-year-old sister. I was over the moon to at least have a familiar voice on the other end of the line but also someone who could explain some of the curious questions I had about his country.

All those in between spaces I dare say.

So just before the group (people from various developing countries) travelled to Linköping we had a few introductory classes in Stockholm and met with many experts on all things forestry. With a free weekend, in between, Lennart picked me up and we headed to his house for dinner. He was incredibly apologetic informing me that he had had to do everything here in his country – cleaning, cooking, washing his cloths etc., unlike in Zambia where he had had help. I laughed and informed him that I would help with dishes after dinner if that was ok (I am after all a cultured Bemba girl). He laughed even harder and said not to worry his dishwasher would do all that. The hilarious chit chat and updates from Mansa – a town he loved and missed dearly.

We arrive at his house and he gets busy to get the early dinner ready and announced it was fish. You see I was born in the lake region of Zambia and I come from fish people. We LOVE FISH!!! I was excited to check out the Swedish version of fish and as he cooked I chatted with his sister who hardly spoke any English but somehow we communicated. And then a whole fish was served, on a bed of sea salt and offered to serve me. Salivating I was stopped in my tracks as I suddenly realized that clearly this fish wasn’t anything like the fish I had grown up eating. I look at him totally startled and with a high pitch in my voice ask why the fish is that colour. He burst out laughing (me not know what the joke was) and informed me that we were about to have salmon.

Salmon? I asked. YES! Of course, I had learnt about this fish and how it migrated in my geography lesson EXCEPT I didn’t realize it had orange flesh.

It remained the joke and highlight of my introduction to Sweden and I still remember that day every time I see salmon.

The group in training - August, 1996, Sweden.

The rest of the trip was spent between classes and outdoors – getting a glimpse of the Swedish outdoors, forest landscapes and the complex dynamics around indigenous communities. I had never heard of such a community and neither did I even know that indigenous communities existed in Europe (I had heard about Amazonia people – thanks to Tarzan and the Khoi san people – thanks to the movie the Gods Must be Crazy). BUT in Sweden – never. And then we drove to Lapland a region in the very north of Sweden towards the Arctic Circle and met these amazing people. Predominantly deer herders, the Sami community pretty much go across the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and into Russia, we learnt. And what was even more curious was that they had their own flag (different from the Swedish one) and language too. One of our guides on the field trip graciously showed us around his community, snuffing away at some tobacco (reminded me of a grandaunt who used to visit our home when I was kid and had snuff tobacco). And gosh the complexities, dynamics and histories around their interactions. It was eye opening and such a curious experience.

Discussion with one of the organizers, Sweden, 1996.

And of course, the rest of the trip was trees, trees and more trees. Mostly homogenous, pine and spruce forests and then the famous Red wooden houses scattered across the landscape.

Field trip around Linkoping, Sweden, 1996.

Our course guide graciously informed us about this famous “Falu” Red colour whose origins stemmed from the copper mines in Sweden and the pigment was a by-product of the mining. I was quick to inform him that I came from a copper country. He knew – he said. Our guide further added that the paint protected the wood from harsh weather and fungal infestation. And water – lots of lakes everywhere – small and big. It was such a beautiful experience. It was colder, darker, with day light hours reducing (first experience of course) and we were informed that soon it would be winter. I was ready to leave. But equally curious about what snow looked like.

The two months went by so fast and by mid-October it was time to return to my country. And to my job with a certificate in tow. 

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